The plastic solutions

What began as an idealistic project of a successful Swiss software entrepreneur, turned into a powerful business model to clean up plastic pollution around the globe. This is the story of the meeting of two entrepreneurs who brought together two technologies to stop plastic pollution on land and simultaneously clean up the oceans. In the meantime, 1.5 million poor people are going to jointly generate a new annual income of $1.5 billion, and the oceans will produce a clean renewable biogas that can be fed into existing pipelines.

Marco Simeoni saw the solution for plastic pollution when, one evening in 2015, he was having a beer outside a café in Rio de Janeiro. It was a warm tropical night. While he was listening to music, he noticed that a man was watching him. At a polite distance, he seemed to be waiting for something. When Simeoni finished his beer, the man came to him and asked for his can. The aluminum had so much value for him that it was worth for him to wait for the Swiss software entrepreneur to finish his drink.

That night Simeoni learned a critical lesson that lies at the core of a major solution for plastic pollution. Aluminum waste has value. People make a living recycling it. In Rio alone, there are more than 150,000 people recycling aluminum. Plastic waste, on the other hand, has no value. That’s why plastic is polluting the environment, the oceans, and our food and our bodies. The solution to the plastic problem has to begin with finding a value for plastic waste. Simeoni started a nonprofit foundation—Race for Water—and embarked on the mission to give plastic waste value and generate income for the people in the world most affected by plastic pollution.

Simeoni is an unlikely environmental activist. He became a successful software entrepreneur in his native Switzerland. After he sold his company, the Veltigroup, to Swiss telecom operator Swisscom, he decided to spend time sailing the world. During his sailing trips he discovered the immensity of the plastic pollution. He had read in newspapers about five major gyres—islands—of plastic in the oceans. “I never saw these islands of plastic”, says Simeoni, “I saw plastic soup. I saw plastic waste everywhere. No matter where you are on the oceans and how far from the coast, if you look through binoculars around your boat for a while, you will see plastic.”

Simeoni learned that only 10 percent of the plastic pollution in the oceans is floating. He quickly realized that you cannot clean the oceans with manmade technologies. “I’m a sailor. I know that you can have 15 meters high waves in the middle of the ocean. There are winds that blow more than 100 kilometers an hour. Some of the seas are thousands of meters deep. There is no way we can clean that with manmade structures”, he says.

Simeoni concluded that the plastic pollution has to be stopped before it reaches the oceans. Today every minute a garbage truck load of plastic is dumped in the ocean. Plastic ends up on beaches and in coastal communities where children grow up in a world full of plastic waste without even knowing the beauty of undisturbed nature. If nothing is done, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050. More than 25 percent of the fish already have toxic plastic in their stomachs. That is a health disaster waiting to happen as half of humanity is dependent on seafood for their daily diet. Already, today, the average consumer eats the weight of a credit card—five grams—of plastic particles every week.

“There is probably only one statistic that gives me hope”, says Simeoni. He refers to the fact that 80 percent of the plastic waste comes from low-income countries. It comes from countries where formal trash collection and recycling hardly exist. These are also the countries where lots of people are making a living recycling other waste—from paper to aluminum and much more. In these places, there is no pollution from waste that has value. However, the ‘informal trash collectors’ do not collect plastic because it has no value. That brought Simeoni back to his experience in Rio. If he could offer these trash collectors a fee that makes collecting plastic as attractive as collecting other waste, the same people could stop the plastic pollution while they improve their own lives. Simeoni: “That is the kind of problem I knew I could solve.”

Collecting plastic waste for recycling seemed to be the obvious next step. Plastic recycling, however, is complex and difficult, if not impossible. To begin with, there are six different ‘families’ of plastics and a seventh category for all the plastics that do not fit in any of the six main categories. Different plastics cannot be recycled together. That simply means that one empty container in the wrong recycling bin renders the whole recycling effort futile. At present, recycling only truly works for two varieties—high density polyethylene (HDPE) and polypropylene (PP)—because the recycled material can more or less compete with virgin material. The next challenge is that many plastic products contain various layers of different plastics, metals and even paper creating inseparable mixes. Often, it is not even clear (anymore) to which family a particular piece of plastic belongs. In addition, the plastics include secret toxic chemical cocktails that improve their functionality.

In this challenging situation, the consumer—and even industry experts and professional recyclers—struggle to decide which piece of plastic waste belongs in which recycle container. The market forces are simply not capable of dealing with the vast majority of complex plastic types. Ultimately, most collected plastic waste is burned—releasing terrible toxic gases—or buried in landfills. Simeoni quickly concluded that recycling plastic is not a solution as long as the industry does not become more conscious about the primary production.

Simeoni found his solution in a well-known chemical process called pyrolysis. The word comes from ancient Greek: pyro means fire and lysis means separating. Pyrolysis is a process whereby materials in an oxygen-free environment are being decomposed in new molecules through heat. Because there is no oxygen the materials are not burning and there is no release of greenhouse gases except for the burning of the fuel to heat the process. The process was used in ancient times to turn wood into charcoal. Today, pyrolysis transforms wood biomass, car tires, sewage sludge and much more into biochar (a type of charcoal used to improve the soil), oil and gas. Plastic is made from oil and, therefore, has a high calorific—energy—value. Pyrolysis can turn plastic back into oil and gas. Simeoni realized that pyrolysis, despite the fact that it is an energy-intensive process, was the only available ‘war surgery’ to deal with plastic waste.

Plastic pollution is a global disaster, but Simeoni concluded that only small-scale local solutions can solve the problem. The plastic waste has to be processed in the communities that suffer from the pollution and in a way that supports these communities. Simeoni and Race for Water designed and built a small factory—reactor—that can easily be shipped around the world and that would integrate shredding the plastic waste, transforming that waste into oil and gas through pyrolysis, and finally combusting these fuels into electricity that can be sold.

The reactor, that can be locally installed in weeks on a lot of 1,000 square meters, can process between 1,500 and 4,500 tons of plastic waste per year. In developing countries, that relates to the plastic consumption of at least 50,000 people. Pyrolysis turns that waste into enough energy to support the needs of up to 30,000 people. Race for Water has decided to concentrate its campaign on Asia where 80 percent of the plastic, that ends up in the oceans, originates. It is estimated that some 12 million tons of plastic were dumped in the oceans in 2016. Eighty percent of that amount would be almost ten million tons. Race for Water has calculated that to stop all that waste from getting into the oceans, 3,400 reactors need to be deployed in Asia in the next ten years. In the process, the campaign will produce income and clean energy for millions of people.

As it turns out, Marco Simeoni’s Brazilian aluminum collector is part of global tribe of ‘waste pickers’. It is almost impossible to determine the size of this informal sector in developing countries. They are called bagerezi in South Africa; catadores in Brazil; and recicladores or cartoneros in Spanish-speaking countries. A World Bank study once estimated that one to two percent of the global urban population survives by salvaging recyclables from waste. That means that millions of people make a living in the one industry ‘that is always hiring’, collecting and selling materials that someone else has thrown away. The informal waste collection is well organized. The pickers deliver their waste to ‘scrap dealers’ who sell the collected materials to interested industries. This means that plastic waste can simply be added as a ‘line item’ to existing practices. There is no need to build a new infrastructure.

The success of the waste collection is first determined by price. A waste picker gets, on average, $0.35 dollar for a kilogram of aluminum, $0.12 for steel and $0.10 for paper. Race for Water has calculated that at a fee of $0.15 per collected kilogram plastic, the electricity that can be generated after the pyrolysis of the waste can be sold competitively. That 15 cents fee is higher than what the collectors get for steel and paper; aluminum is in a smaller recycling class of its own. Race for Water projects that the average waste picker will collect 25 kilograms of plastic per day. If the collectors work 260 days a year, they will turn in 6.5 tons of plastic per person per year. The economic impact of the program will be phenomenal. There are 1.5 million waste pickers needed to collect the about 10 million ton of plastic waste that is being deposited in the ocean in Asia every year. Their collective annual income will be around $1.5 billion.

Race for Water is introducing the business model to investors and raising awareness through an international ‘plastic waste is the problem and the solution’ campaign led by the world’s biggest solar catamaran. The 100 percent ecological Race for Water vessel is on a 4-year journey around the oceans visiting the communities worst hit by plastic pollution. Simeoni has found a business solution to prevent plastic pollution. However, his solution does not cleanup the plastic that is already in his beloved oceans. That part of the solution had to come from another technology introduced by a different entrepreneur.

In 1990, in the beginning of his career, Gunter Pauli became CEO of the Belgian ecological cleaning products manufacturer, Ecover. He quickly learned a critical lesson about sustainability when he discovered that rainforests in Indonesia were being cut to create plantations to produce the palm oil that was a key ingredient of Ecover’s biodegradable soaps. Pauli: “I thought we were doing it perfectly. Ecover was 100 percent biodegradable—that was 99.9 percent better than the competition. Unfortunately, while we were cleaning rivers in Europe, we were destroying rainforests and the habitat of orangutans in Asia.”

When Pauli could not convince his shareholders that success for Ecover would come from even better soap which would not destroy rainforests, and not from lower costs, he left the company. The experience set him on a course to design better business models. Thirty years ago, at the request of the Japanese government Pauli set up Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives (ZERI). This has become a global network of 3,000 scientists and entrepreneurs focused on creating, what he calls, a “Blue Economy”. “Green is simply not good enough’, says Pauli, “with the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ mantra we cannot end the destruction of the planet. We need to regenerate nature.”

Three decades of innovative regeneration projects—from tea and coffee plantations to rainforests—also led to an unexpected solution for plastic pollution. In the past 10 years, scientists and entrepreneurs have increasingly investigated seaweed—or kelp—plantations as renewable and regenerative sources for food and energy. Seaweed farms restore depleted marine environments. In some places seaweed pioneers realize harvests of up to 1,000 tons per hectare per year confirming the massive productivity of seaweeds. However, in other places in similar circumstances—to their surprise—the harvests were not nearly as abundant. When scientists analyzed the seaweeds in their labs, they found a troubling fact. The seaweeds had tiny plastics in their pores that hampered their growth.

Initially, this was bad news. If the seaweeds were growing less, it would decrease the production of biogas and fertilizers, and spoil the emerging new business model. But then Pauli realized that he had stumbled on a most-promising opportunity to design a microplastics capturing system! With a little help, nature can do what it always does, restore and regenerate. And it can do so better than any solely manmade technology. Pauli: “If we plant ‘curtains’ of seaweed, we know that they will capture the microplastics.”

Tests have already confirmed that the microplastics can be captured from the harvested seaweeds. Subsequently, the seaweeds can still be used as intended for food, biogas, fertilizer and much more. The microplastics can be turned back into energy through the same system of pyrolysis that Marco Simeoni discovered as the best solution to stop plastic pollution. “A business model to clean up the oceans is developing”, says Pauli. He compares the seaweed solution with the costly attempts to clean up the oceans with heavy, manmade structures and technology. Pauli: “There is no revenue in these undertakings. Seaweed cleans up the ocean and provides multiple revenue streams.”

In today’s economy we have become used to the concept of externalized costs. These are the expenses that society or nature pays for industrial behavior. The environmental destruction that happens when companies mine minerals and that nobody cleans up afterwards is an example of externalized costs. And, air pollution is an externalized cost as a result of the combustion of fossil fuels. Seaweed production, on the other hand, comes with many externalized benefits. Seaweed regenerates marine ecosystems which supports the restoration of fish stocks. Once seaweed forests start to recover the oceans, they will temper the waves, and protect coastal zones against rising sea levels. Producing biogas through the fermentation of seaweed in a digester is a simple process compared to, for instance, converting corn into ethanol which is a capital-intensive chemical process. Seaweed sequesters carbon and helps to mitigate climate change as a zero-emissions energy source. Finally, seaweed cultivation offers multiple additional benefits from animal feed, to ingredients for the textile, food and cosmetics industries.

The seaweed story gets better when we compare with the supply of fossil fuels that will end sooner or later. Seaweed gas, on the other hand, can be harvested forever. Investments made today—and maintained over time—will produce eternal returns…that is as long as the sun shines and there is water in the ocean. Seaweed gas is a truly clean and renewable resource. The potential of biogas from seaweed is massive. For example: The United States could fulfill its entire annual energy needs with a seaweed farm of 3.3 million square kilometers. That may seem a lot, but farmers cultivate 3.7 million square kilometers of land in the U.S.

There is another factor that makes seaweed as a source for biogas very compelling: the infrastructure. Most countries already have an infrastructure of natural gas pipelines. That means that a transition to biogas from seaweeds does not require massive infrastructural investments. A different gas is going to flow through the same pipes. That makes seaweed very attractive as a source for power even compared to the rapid rise of wind and solar. Because these stars of the new clean renewable energy world still require quite some investments. For example: Building one large wind turbine requires 900 tons of steel, 2,500 tons of concrete and 45 tons of plastic.

Pauli envisions the establishment of ‘microplastic free zones’ in front of coasts. Initial experiments show that placing seaweed ‘curtains’ in shallow coastal ocean zones of up to 25 meters deep blocks microplastics from reaching the coast. The tests show that seawater that is ‘filtered’ through four curtain lines becomes almost plastic free. The objective is to begin cleanup efforts with creating microplastic free zones around fragile coast lines and preventing small fish, mollusks, oysters and mussels ingesting microplastics. A dense seaweed curtain can capture some 10 billion microparticles per hectare—five kilograms—every six months. Given the amount of plastic pollution in the oceans, these numbers illustrate the extraordinary challenge ahead of us. Establishing seaweed curtains around fragile coastal areas is only a modest beginning.

Of course, microplastic free zones can only emerge when no new plastic pollution enters the ocean from land. That is why the seaweed curtains have to be created in parallel with a plastic waste capturing system… When Marco Simeoni and Gunter Pauli met at a conference in Switzerland, they quickly realized that jointly they had the complete response to the plastic disaster: they can stop the pollution on land, and they can begin cleaning up the oceans. Just as in nature, opportunities arise when elements come together. Simeoni and Pauli envision combining the traditional technologies of pyrolysis and digestion in an innovative, new way. The combination leads to an exponential improvement of both business models as the efficiencies of both processes increase: when solutions are clustered, benefits multiply.

Simeoni needs an investment of $12 billion to place 3,400 pyrolysis reactors in coastal communities in Southeast Asia to capture 80 percent of the global plastic pollution. Pauli foresees an investment of an additional $12 billion to establish some 35 hectares of microplastic free zone in front of the coastlines of each of these 3,400 communities to begin cleaning up the oceans. The total investment of $24 billion may seem like a lot of money. However, the cost of generating one gigawatt with nuclear power is about $4 billion. In other words: Simeoni and Pauli propose cleaning up plastic pollution, developing communities and regenerating the oceans for the same amount of money as needed for building one nuclear power station that generates six gigawatts. Such a nuclear power plant is smaller than existing nuclear power stations in Japan, South Korea, China and Canada.

But the most importing message is that there is a strong business model to solve one of the biggest challenges people and planet face. Everybody knows that problems get solved when people and businesses can make money doing so. The engine of for-profit business always outperforms idealistic nonprofit initiatives. The ‘plastic solutions enterprise’ that Simeoni and Pauli are presenting, can generate $5 billion revenue and more than $1 billion profit each year from the sales of gas and fertilizer. At the same time 1.5 million poor people are going to generate $1.5 billion new income, land will be freed from plastic waste and marine environments get regenerated. That is not a bad return for a $24 billion investment. [JK]

Excerpted with permission from Gunter Pauli, Marco Simeoni with Jurriaan Kamp: The plastic solutions, The business model that works for the oceans.

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